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Will 2023 be the decisive year in Myanmar's civil war?

Rodion Ebbighausen
February 1, 2023

Myanmar's military staged a coup two years ago and unleashed a brutal civil war. In 2023, the military hopes to gain legitimacy with a sham election. Whether the junta succeeds depends on how the resistance responds.

A three finger salute in front of a line of police
For two years, the resistance to Myanmar's junta has faced a brutal crackdown Image: Getty Images

Thousands dead and at least 1.5 million internally displaced persons, that is the cost of the civil war in Myanmar so far.

Since Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, took power on February 1, 2021, there have been repeated battles, attacks and kidnappings throughout the country. The prisons are full of political prisoners who are abused, tortured and murdered by the military.

The ousted head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, was sentenced in sham trials to a total of more than 30 years in prison. Independent reporting is extremely difficult, and journalists are threatened, persecuted and killed.

There are at least three conflicting parties in this civil war. The military government calls itself the State Administrative Council (SAC). The resistance consists of the National Unity Government (NUG), the parliament in-exile (Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, CRPH, elected in 2020 but ousted by coup), and the People's Defense Forces PDF.

Then there are a variety of ethnic groups spread throughout Myanmar and their armies, some of which support the resistance, others the military government, and in some cases those who remain neutral.

Like any civil war, the conflict has military, economic and political dimensions. In all areas, the parties to the conflict are trying to gain the upper hand.

Resisting the junta: Myanmar's young rebels

Myanmar's undecided power struggle

Militarily, the picture is divided. The Tatmadaw dominates large parts of Myanmar's heartland and large cities such as Yangon, Mandalay and the capital, Naypyidaw.

Regions populated by ethnic minorities form a horseshoe around the heartland. Here, either the NUG or the respective ethnic minorities have the upper hand.

However, analysts agree that there will be no march on the capital any time soon, as the balance of raw military power continues to favor the Tatmadaw. This is thanks in part to Russian arms deliveries last November. Myanmar's military now has Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets at its disposal, while many citizen militias have to get by with homemade rifles.

Political scientist Michal Lubina, from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, told DW that the armed resistance aims to pressure the military on as many fronts as possible.

Lubina said this could potentially spark a counter coup, or at least a power reshuffle within the Tatmadaw. "That would open a door for negotiation with the PDFs, or NUG," he added.  However, there are currently no signs that this will happen anytime soon.

Burmese soldiers hold bayonets
The Tatmadaw control Myanmar's major cities and its heartlandImage: Aung Shine Oo/AP/picture alliance

Myanmar's economic war

Through civil disobedience, attacks on infrastructure such as the power grid, and boycotts of military-owned businesses, the resistance aims to cut off the Tatmadaw from essential revenue streams.

Conversely, the military is trying to prevent the transfer of donations from the population to the resistance, while building a favorable environment for its own economic supporters.

As a result of this internal economic war, Myanmar's gross domestic product has shrunk dramatically. In July 2022, it was still 13% smaller than in the year before the coup, according to the World Bank. Around 40% of the population lives below the national poverty line.

Although population suffers in these miserable economic conditions, this side of the conflict continues undecided.

The military's attempt at 'legitimacy' in 2023

While it remains unclear militarily and economically what 2023 will bring, it can already be said that the military is doing everything it can to achieve a political victory and strengthen its legitimacy by announcing elections in the coming year.

It is already clear that the elections will be neither free nor fair. And they cannot be held everywhere country. The election commission consists of 15 members handpicked by the military chief.

In fiercely contested areas, it will be virtually impossible to allow the population to vote. The electoral system will also be altered in such a way that strongly favors the military, for which 25% of all seats in all parliaments are already reserved, according to the constitution.

Soldiers patrol in a jungle
Armed militia's in Myanmar's ethnic minority regions oppose the TatmadawImage: Esther Htusan/AP Photo/picture alliance

Last Friday, electoral law reform was enacted that makes it impossible for many parties to participate in the elections. For example, parties must have 100,000 proven members three months after their registration in order to participate in the elections.  

A facade for the outside world

Although the majority of Myanmar's population rejects the elections and military rule, the Tatmadaw can still use its position of power to build ties abroad.

"The junta is tired of being called the junta. They want to preserve a sort of facade to make it easier, especially for Asian powers, to normalize relations with Myanmar," said Lubina. These countries would include China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.

The mock election could make it more palatable for these countries, which have fewer reservations over military rule than Europe or the US, to work with Myanmar. And Myanmar's military needs these partners to get the country's economy moving again.

The elections also pose a risk to the image of the resistance abroad.

The International Crisis Group's Myanmar expert Richard Horsey told DW that if voting stations are attacked by citizen militias, and the elections overshadowed by excessive violence, that would make it easier for countries that do not want to take sides to relativize the conflict.

An empty city street
The streets are empty in Yangon on the two-year anniversary of Myanmar's military coupImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

"The problem with electoral violence is it's unlikely to prevent the regime from going ahead with whatever plans it has," he said.

"It will damage the reputation of the resistance and it will make it easier for countries who in any case want to portray this for their own reasons as a 'complex issue,' and say 'no one's in the right there. It's a conflict. You have to look at all sides of this,'" he said.

Horsey said Tatmadaw leader Min Aung Hlaing sees the election as a transition process "not back to democracy, not back to peace, not away from violence, but towards consolidating his control and his vision for the future of Myanmar."

This would be a future with Hlaing at the head of a military government in civilian garb legitimized by sham elections.

This article has been translated from German